Back to the Desert

A conversation with ‘Desert Hearts’ filmmaker Donna Deitch

Filmmaker Donna Deitch.

As the sexually rigid Reagan era wound down only to see Bush One take the Oval Office chair, the 1980s nonetheless represented a springboard for images of homosexuality in the movies.

Acclaimed feature films Making Love (1982), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), the amusing yet insulting Partners (1986), and ultimately the award-winning Torch Song Trilogy (1988) provided movie lovers with positive images of gay men.

But things were a bit sketchier for lesbians seeking their own on the big screen. In 1982, Robert Townes’ then-dreadful, now-campy Personal Best spoke stutteringly of The Lesbian Experience, but ultimately caved to a more palpable bisexual ending. And acclaimed author John Sayles’ Lianna (1992), while more triumphantly lesbic in theme, couldn’t rise above poor performances and spotty production value.

Wedged between Personal and Lianna was Desert Hearts, an independent film based on the 1964 novel, Desert of the Hearts. In the novel, lesbian author Jane Rule wrote of the occupants of a Reno, Nevada, dude ranch who take up residency just long enough to legally obtain quickie divorces before skedaddling off to their next adventures.

Donna Deitch in 1986 (on the cover of TWIT).

Seeking to ward off what she predicted would be heavy-handed manipulation by major film studio heads who sought to buy the film rights, Rule chose to place her story’s future in the hands of independent filmmaker (and sister sister) Donna Deitch.

Adapted for the big screen by Deitch in 1985, Desert Hearts introduced us to Professor Vivian Bell, stuck between tines in the fork of her life’s road, and casino babe/sculptor Cay Rivvers, she too stuck between the roulette and potter’s wheels of her own life.

As the story unfolds, the two women help each other get unstuck, so to speak. But most refreshingly, the movie doesn’t end by resorting to suicide or a bisexuality loophole. The two simply embark a train and chug away into the sunset.

In a review prior to Desert Hearts’ spring 1986 opening at Manhattan’s Cinema 2, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby summarily put the groundbreaking lesbian-themed film in its place—or, at least, he tried.

Desert Hearts has no voice or style of its own,” Canby wrote. “It’s as flat as a recorded message from the telephone company.”

Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) and Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau) board a train in the desert....

More than 20 years later, lesbians, gay men, and many other film lovers of undeclared sexuality continue to dial up that flat, recorded telephone message, recognizing the impact Donna Deitch’s classic feature film would represent in their lives.

Celebrating the landmark movie’s near-silver anniversary milestone, Wolfe Vintage (“Vintage”? Oh, no, they di-in’t!) has put together a special edition DVD of Desert Hearts, dropping June 5, chock-full of bonus features including an updated director’s commentary from Deitch herself.

But we couldn’t wait’til June 5. Prior to the special volume’s release, Deitch spoke with OutSmart from her Venice, California, home. We talked about what it took to put the Desert Hearts film together, what happened when Oprah called, and what may have happened after Vivian and Cay’s train pulled
away from the station.

Oh, yes…one other thing. She’s working on a sequel.

Nancy Ford: You’ve called Desert Hearts “the quintessential labor of love.” Why do you characterize it that way?
Donna Deitch: Well, I think it’s because I took a long time to raise the money. That was a very arduous, strung-out affair that went on for, oh, two and a half years. And at the time, I was not otherwise employed, so “labor of love” usually is about something that one does without recompense. At least, monetary recompense. So it all began that way.

desertCarI made the film I wanted to make. I wasn’t working for anybody. I think we made the film I wanted to see myself, and it was the best job I’ve ever had, considering I gave the job to myself. That was great.

You were a good boss, then?
Yes, I think I was a very good boss to myself, and to everybody else.

I was surprised to learn that you’d gotten funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Yes, that was a grant that I received way back in the very beginning. Actually, that grant was not for this film. That grant was for another film, and I requested that they allow me to put the grant over to this film.

VintageCollectionAnd there was no resistance?
There was no problem. They agreed to that.

Well, that was a long time ago.

That’s true. You also said in the commentary that Desert Hearts taught you something about fundraising, and that you’d never do it again. Is that what you learned?
[Laughs] Well, let’s say this: I would never do it again with that small amount of money for a film. I’ve done a lot of fundraising since, for organizations I support—nonprofits. I have not done any fundraising for a film since. But the increments were so small that it just took a lot of investors and, therefore, a long time to raise financing. If I had access to people who would care to invest at the $100,000 or above level, I would do it again.

Well, I would think that a Desert Hearts sequel could attract that kind of investor pretty quickly.
It’s funny you should mention that, because I am working on that right now—not the fundraising, but the writing of the screenplay.

My mouth just fell open. How exciting!
Well, it’s been a back-burner project for me for a long time—really, since Desert Hearts came out.

It’s almost like having a child, I imagine.
Yes. When Desert Hearts came out, I was involved in selling the film for some time after it opened in New York. And then Oprah Winfrey called me. She saw the film, and she offered me a job directing a miniseries called The Women of Brewster Place for ABC. And that sort of set me off on a course that I never saw coming and never would have imagined, which was as a director for hire, in television. And I sort of found myself going from one fantastic job to the next.

That’s how Desert Hearts Part 2, or sequel, or whatever it’s going to be called, kept going further and further to the back burner. And then I just suddenly made up my mind—it’s now or never. I’ve got to get on with this.
It’s very, very hard, in independent filmmaking. It’s doubly difficult when you’re working a 14-hour day, in the course of all of this directing for television. So I’ve just been trying to clear some time to get back to my own work lately. And Desert Hearts, of course, is at the very top of that list.

That would just be exquisite, to see what happens after they get off that train, 20 years later. Just exquisite. Is it too early to talk about any of the former cast members who might return?
Well, thanks. It’s a little early to be talking about the story. The story, of course, takes place later. And it takes place in Manhattan, and it gathers more characters as it goes along…

...as we do in real life.
[Laughs] Yes, as we do in real life. Exactly. I’m actually planning on this being the first of a series of sequels.

How very exciting. Now, would it be a feature film or for television?
Oh, yes, feature film.

Very exciting. Any projected target date?
My guess is probably that it could be out a year and a half from now.

That’s not long.
No, it’s not. I think that the financing will come very quickly, and it’s just a question of clearing space and applying myself, finishing the screenplay. The release of the DVD has really given me a lot of momentum and motivation to get back to the story.

Another thing that’s on the new DVD is an extra where I am interviewing Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, 20 years later, in my office here in Venice. That is very entertaining and hilarious; the conversations we have are very forthright and not-to-be-missed on the new DVD. There will be new commentary, and then there’ll be some dailies from the love scene that have never been seen before.

Fabulous! Was that your favorite scene in the movie?
I don’t know if that was my favorite. On the commentary, I found myself saying that the last scene with them getting on the train was my favorite.

Sometimes one scene is my favorite scene, and then when I’m in another mood, another scene is my favorite scene. I think it goes along with your mood at the time you’re watching it. It all has to do with the audience I’m watching it with.

That’s a good point. I will never forget being in the River Oaks Theatre, back in’86 with a theater full of lesbians and hearing this huge “Whoop!” go up when the women are in the hotel room, when Vivian is explaining why she can’t get involved, and turns to see Cay in the bed, topless. Just hysterical.
Yes, I have them talking about that in the interview, as well. And Patricia in particular talks about how she felt when she knew the camera was going to turn to her and she’s in the bed, nude, and all of that. But that is so thrilling for me to hear you say.

Oh, it was a spontaneous eruption! Everyone at the same time! It was just wonderful. I’ll never forget it.
How did you arrive at the decision to shoot the love scene in full light? Very brave, given the subject matter, to have it in the stark daylight.
Well, it was a daylight scene, so I wanted it to be very, very realistic. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were in the room. I didn’t want to do things like close the curtains and make it feel dark. I wanted it to feel like the full-out daylight scene that it was.

Vivian Bell even says, “This is not something I usually do at 11 o’clock in the morning.” So I thought it was important to make it feel like daylight.

The original movie trailer, I noticed, was almost presented as a comedy.
There are a lot of comedic moments. That was very, very intentional. In fact, when it first opened in the spring of’86, my brother, who lives in New York City, used to count the laughs. And then he’d call me to tell me how many laughs he’d heard.

[Laughs] 57?

Yes, 57, according to the commentary on the first DVD release.
Speaking of comedy, I have a very dear friend who can pull a
Desert Hearts quote out of the air that suits any occasion.
Is she a comedian?

No, she’s not. Well, not professionally. Do you have a specific favorite quote, or mantra?
Well, I think it’s my own line [as the Hungarian slot-machine player]: “If you don’t play, you can’t win,” without the accent.

That’s a good one. Switching subjects…Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Amy Irving, and Debra Winger were some of the top female actors when you were shooting. I’m wondering what casting was like for you. Was it hard to find actors who would “play gay”? Did a lot of actors turn down parts?
I’ll tell you, a lot of people refused to come in for a meeting or come in for an audition for numerous parts, not just for the parts of Vivian Bell and Cay Rivvers. There were actors who simply didn’t want to be in the film at all.

Because of the lesbian plot?
Yes, because of the subject matter. And those were supporting roles, too, never mind the lead roles.

Like the occupants of the dude ranch?
Yes, and the part of Silver, and others. The agents would reply to the casting director in some generic way, like, “My client’s not interested.”

The casting director had been around long enough to know that there was a lot of subtext behind these refusals. Usually, agents will be rather specific on behalf of their clients and say things like, “My client is unavailable,” or “My client is booked at the time you are shooting,” or “My client doesn’t work for scale,” or something rather specific. It was these generic refusals that tipped us off.

Can I convince you to drop any names?
[Laughing] No.

[More laughing] I didn’t think so. That’s OK.
[Even more laughing] They know who they are.

I watched the film a couple of times in preparation for our conversation, and something jumped out at me that I didn’t notice so much before. In the film, Vivian describes herself as leaving a decent marriage to see if she could find an honest life. Do you think Vivian knew she was a lesbian before meeting Cay? Or suspected?
Well, I think that as much as any lesbian may know that she is a lesbian. I mean, I’m sure there are lesbians who know they’re lesbians who don’t really become lesbians. And I think people are in some way intuitive and perhaps unconsciously so, for some reason, about their sexual preference, their homosexuality. I think that it lies under the surface, and some layers under the surface for lots of people. And so I think that she’s alluding to that without knowing specifically what she’s talking about.

The dedication at the end of the film reads, “To J.B.” Who is J.B.?
J.B. is Judy Baca, who was my partner at the time. She’s a mural painter.

Do the two of you still have any contact?
Oh yes, she’s a very, very close friend of mine. Lives quite nearby.

That’s how it is with my friend and me, the one with all the Desert Hearts quotes.
[Laughs] Oh, really?

In fact, we were together at the time Desert Hearts originally came out; we saw it together. So, yes, our relationships endure.
And that’s wonderful that they do. We need some continuity, don’t we?

Nancy Ford interviewed The L Word’s Janina Gavankar for OutSmart’s January issue (“Ay Papi”).

More favorite Desert Hearts quotes, suitable as snappy retorts for nearly any occasion
• “You’re the best, and all the best people know it.”
• “If you don’t play, you can’t win.”
• “I don’t claim angels wings, but I am normal.”
• “Good times’ll hurt you in the end.”
• “Don’t talk to me about God, girl.”
• “I suppose we’d all put in for a new past if we could.”
• “Whatever it is, it’s too deep for us to understand.”
• “How you get all that traffic with no equipment is beyond me.”
• “Don’t squeeze, I ain’t stayin’.”


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